Looking back at 2021 | Labour’s unassailable lead: a new normal

Christmas Specials • Labour and its leaders have since the last general election enjoyed comfortable leads over the Nationalist Party and 2021 has confirmed this to be somewhat of a new normal

The Labour Party has enjoyed an unassailable lead in the polls since the general election and 2021 has been no different. 

The last full year of the legislature has seen the PL retain a comfortable lead over the Nationalist Party, despite the Opposition’s change in leader. 

It would appear Labour’s unassailable lead has come to reflect a new normal in Maltese politics despite the controversies and corruption allegations that have hounded the administration. 

MaltaToday survey results show that the PL’s average support for 2021 stood at 43.3%, while that for the PN stood at 31.5% - a gap of almost 12 points. 

The closest the parties ever came was in April when the PN posted its best result at 35.6% and the PL was still recovering from its worst performance a month earlier. However, the gap in April still saw the PL ahead by 6.2 points. 

A year with two faces 

But a closer look shows there were two faces to 2021 with the two major parties experiencing opposite realities. 

Between January and June, support for the PL averaged at 42.4% but improved by two points in the second half of 2021 to 44.3%. 

The PN experienced a different story. In the first six months, support for the PN averaged at 32.4% but dropped by two points to 30.5% between July and December. 

The results suggest that the PL’s fortunes are tied to the pandemic and how the government handles the situation. 

At the start of the year, loose talk by the Prime Minister on how the country will get back to business as usual angered people as Malta experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases. 

The procrastination to adopt tough restrictions did not help and this was also reflected in the polls with Labour registering its worst result since 2017. In March, support for the PL stood at 39.2%, the first time it dipped below the 40% mark. 

But the polls immediately reflected a positive response from voters the moment government acted decisively to bring the pandemic under control. After June, when cases dwindled to insignificance and the vaccination drive had reached the vast majority of people, the PL’s support increased and remained constant. Not even greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force dented the PL’s supremacy. 

One step forward, two steps back 

On the other hand, the lack of party unity appears to be the single most important issue that had an impact on the PN’s fortunes throughout 2021. 

With Bernard Grech elected PN leader in September 2020, the party started the new year on a positive note, registering improved results. 

The baby steps forward saw the PN scoring its highest result since 2017 when in April it polled 35.6%. 

But the feel-good factor was lost a month later in the wake of a public tiff between MP Jason Azzopardi and former leader Adrian Delia that necessitated Grech’s intervention. 

Between June and December, the PN’s fortunes did not recover from that hit with Grech attempting different excuses to justify the dismal poll results as his party failed to capitalise on government’s woes. 

The PN leader did manage to improve the party’s performance when compared to past results under his predecessor but the steps forward fell far short of what is required to present a credible challenge to the PL. 

A matter of trust 

A trend that was confirmed in 2021 was the popularity of the respective leaders in relation to the support their parties enjoyed. 

Robert Abela remained more popular than the PL, while Grech languished behind his party. This trend suggests that the PL has a growth potential because its leader is better placed to convince doubters to vote for it. 

2021 was the first full year in which the trust ratings of Abela and Grech could be compared. 

The trend line for both leaders largely mimicked that of their respective parties with the Prime Minister doing better in the second half of the year, while Grech seeing his rating wane between July and December. 

In the first six months, Abela’s trust rating averaged at 45.1%, having been hit by the initial mishandling of the pandemic at the start of the year. 

But between July and December, Abela’s average trust rating shot up to 50.5%, a five-point jump. 

Grech’s average trust rating between January and June stood at 32.6% but slipped by almost five points to 28.1% in the second half of the year. 

The average for the whole year saw Abela enjoy a 17-point lead over his rival – the Prime Minister’s average trust rating stood at 47.6% in 2021 and the PN leader’s rating stood at 30.6%. 

The numbers suggest that Labour is on course to win the next general election in a big way but like Harold Wilson once said, a week is a long time in politics. 

The latest surge in coronavirus cases and government’s handling of the situation could be the biggest threat Labour faces although Abela has learnt his lesson and avoided the gratuitous talk that landed him in trouble earlier this year. 

But while for Labour, managing the new normal will be the most important thing until the election, the PN will be hoping it can disrupt the pattern. 

Average trust rating Robert Abela 

January – June: 45.1% 

July – December: 50.5% 

Full year: 47.6% 

Average trust rating Bernard Grech 

January – June: 32.6% 

July – December: 28.1% 

Full year: 30.6% 

Average PL support 

January – June: 42.4% 

July – November: 44.3% 

Full year: 43.3% 

Average PN support 

January – June: 32.4% 

July – November: 30.5% 

Full year: 31.5%